Of all of the rational things to fear about the future, nothing is more insidious and more threatening than ignorance. Nothing is more pervasive and more unrelenting in deleterious effect than being unaware of the vital matters that should command our attention, if only we recognized them and how important they are to our well being. Hindsight provides an irrefutable historical record with which to confirm this assertion. We have the technological know-how to explore our solar system and tinker with DNA, and yet the majority of our citizens understand so little about human relations that wars are inevitable. At times, even our idealistic ability to practice democracy is suspect.
Zoom out for a big-picture look at our approach to education, and the mass production of ignorance begins to make sense, not because of intent—our intentions are noble—but by default of method and circumstance. An educational system born in an agrarian culture, and later industrialized to produce compliant employees, mass produces the skills of how, but inhibits questions as to why. The result is a debilitating kind of existential ignorance taught in assembly-line fashion, as millions of people learn to be human doings, but not human beings. Turning the tide is a difficult proposition. It requires engaging the population at-large in an all-out effort to rise to a level of education necessary to attain our democratic ideals, establish a genuine democracy, and build a sustainable civilization.
In September University, I examine the incapacitating results of what I describe as a saddle-horse education—the kind that groups together children who are the same age but have varying levels of ability, and holds them in lockstep rhythm with a constant barrage of answers to questions they have not asked. This approach may seem to work well for some, but for millions of people it amounts to a profound numbing of the psyche, followed by a lifetime spent avoiding the very thing that offers a person the greatest quality of life, namely, the benefit of a humanistic education. Enriched with the humanities, the same people would be able to deal with their own anxieties without the felt need to blame others for sharing the same planet.
Nothing is more devastating than what amounts to the cauterization of curiosity for a large segment of society. Explaining the matter away by claiming that some people are simply not bookish is not a respectable answer—it’s a rationalization and a shallow one at that. The fact that millions of people feel it appropriate to argue vociferously over subjects they know nothing, whatsoever, about—subjects they have never examined above a level of water-cooler hearsay or a Fox News announcement—is one of the most disturbing behaviors of our species. It’s one that should and would be the focus of our educational system, except for the fact that the objective defaulted by circumstance is to produce dutiful employees, not responsible citizens.